The movie “The Judge” highlights our divorce culture stereotype

What is everyone missing in their reviews of this movie? Something you would only catch if you’ve been through it of course, the looming child custody battle.

I was all ready to watch a movie about a father and son with an estranged relationship in the new Robert Downey, Jr. movie “The Judge.” What I didn’t expect, but do see all too often in movies, was the portrayal of a child custody battle where the mother makes the assumption that the child is hers and that the father stands no chance of having their child in his life because he cannot give her the names of the child’s teachers or know every detail of the child’s schedule. What’s worse is that all the big box office movies portray custody as an all or nothing assumption. They never assume that the child will have two homes after the parents split. They just go right for mom has custody, dad has visitation. You know, the usual, parents messed up, no longer get along, and now the child will be fought over and torn from one of their parents.

Just normal, routine, right? Sad and pitiful is more like it. Really, have we not learned anything since Kramer v. Kramer? Have we not learned anything from the tragic deaths and lives that have been destroyed because of these unnecessary battles? Fathers and mothers that commit suicide, children killing parents, parents killing children, parents killing the other parent and many times other innocents as well. California’s Salon shootings, father burning self on stairs, children falling into depression and developing severe anxiety disorders that are carried into adulthood and manifest into other self-destructive behaviors. We complain about movies perpetuating bad examples and many people start campaigns to prohibit movies from encouraging treating people like sex objects or encouraging violence. But, here we are, 2014, and movies are still portraying children like they are property and something to fight over in a divorce. I looked around and nobody seemed to be bothered by this scene. Everyone was still sitting there quietly.

I really wanted to enjoy this movie. And it really was well done. But I couldn’t shake the constant worry about the impending child custody battle that Downey was facing. I knew that he was going to face even greater challenges when he got back home and thought that he could win his child the traditional way of proving that he was a good father. He, no doubt, would think that he could prove that he was very responsible and that he should be revered for taking care of his family. After all he is just being responsible right? He would feel that this should count towards showing his great character, morals, and values, right? I knew, just as many of you reading this that have been through it, that he was going to pay a price for his beliefs and for staying in Indiana to help his father after his mother’s death. I knew that he was going to pay a price, a huge price, for being naïve and ignorant to what a custody battle really is. Yes even an attorney can fall victim to the silent epidemic and viral culture in the family courts.

Sadly most of us don’t learn this until we’ve been through it and suffered greatly, some of us to the point of homelessness, bankruptcy, and the permanent and irreparable harm to our relationships with our children, family, and friends as well as the destruction of our health and dignity. We learn that it is really about the battle of biased beliefs, values, morals, and desires of a judge, attorneys (GALs – Guardian ad Litems), and others. It is never really about the child so much as it is about government power to control. Power used in the wrong way however destroys family bonds.

I wanted to leap up and tell everyone how this child custody battle would end! That they were going to take over his life, take over his pocketbook, and take over his relationship with his child. That they were going to use his emotional attachment and love for his child to take advantage of him and his daughter. I knew that there was no way to convince him or anyone else in the audience that hasn’t been through it.

He would think that it would be different for him. He would never believe that he would get treated with anything other than respect. He would never believe that he could become the victim of parental alienation. He would believe that they family courts were all run fairly and that everyone involved were all professionals and that they would do their job properly. He still had faith and trust in the system. He was still living in that bubble that so many people still live in every day. It’s a silent epidemic that is right there in front of them. But they don’t see it because they have been conditioned culturally that this is normal. Very similar to the holocaust, slavery, Jim Crow laws, and women’s suffrage. All of these things were accepted as normal and expected until a few finally broke through that bubble and changed everything.

But “The Judge” like so many other movies left the subject of divorce and a child custody battle as quickly as it touched on it and left those in the audience suffering this silent epidemic to continue suffering silently alone. I was quickly reminded that this movie wasn’t about Downey’s disintegrating marriage and looming custody battle when it shifted off that scene (only to re-visit one more time in a scene I mention later) and into the story about the father-son estranged relationship and Downey’s struggle to live up to his father’s standards as he struggled to defend his father in a murder case. A different topic for another time.

Fathers have been conditioned for generations to believe that the male must be a role model and uphold their responsibility to support the family, while at the same time they have been taught that they are not an important part of the caretaking and nurturing of the child. While strides have been made to re-train men in the way they think about their role with fatherhood, family courts have continued to treat parents unequally under the law and strip children of loving parents. National fatherhood initiatives have been created by the whitehouse and organizations like National Fatherhood Clearinghouse have developed to help with this education. Yet movies are still reflecting the stereotypical assumption for the most part. This movie is no different.

There is another interesting dynamic in the movie that is worth mentioning and that is Downey’s daughter has no relationship with her grandparents. It isn’t until Downey goes out to help his father in his trial that she comes out and gets to know her grandfather. Interesting how a married couple kept their child from the grandparents yet not too long ago a judge in Fargo North Dakota attempted to force grandparent visitation on a single mother and even jailed her for refusing. This is another area of debate currently in our society due to the number of parents suffering parental alienation after a judge awards one parent primary control over the time of the child and then does nothing to ensure the other parent is able to get physical custody even during the time the order states they should have them.

At one point in the movie, during a father-daughter bonding moment where Downey lets his daughter drive from sitting in his lap she brings up the issue of her parents disintegrating divorce and the looming child custody battle.

She tells Downey that all of his stuff is in boxes and he tells her “that’s one of the stages” of divorce. She tells him that her friends have gone through it, and she names a couple of them off. Then she says “but I never thought it would be me.” Then the all too familiar statement that just sticks daggers in your heart, she says “I suppose I’m going to be asked which one of you I want to live with?” And Downey calmly tells her “yes” that is the stage we are in.

Once again I found myself drifting from the movie and looking around the theater to see if anyone was digging in their pockets to throw something in protest or to yell that this is insane and not how it should be. Wondering how many sitting in the theater recognized that this was how the courts put the children in the middle! That didn’t happen. And I sat there wondering if anyone else in the theater was feeling it, whether anyone else was fed up with this barbaric and archaic system that has bred a culture of putting the children in the middle and stripping them of fit and loving parents based on the activities and duties that we have taught the adults to undertake.

We should not be punishing parents for taking care of their elders and having to spend some time away. We should not be punishing parents and children for having different roles and making different decisions in the marriage than we would make in divorce. Parents can agree that one parent is a primary caretaker while the other one goes away to war or even to work far away to earn so that the family can pay their bills and eat and provide as much as they choose for that child. But in divorce, the parents are not being allowed to make different decisions than they made in marriage. The parent who worked away because they could earn more that way, may want to take a lesser paying job now and spend more time with the child since the other parent no longer agrees and the two of them each have different things they wish to influence and teach the child. What worked during the marriage may not work for them in divorce. That is private family business and is not up to a judge, a teacher, a psychologist, or any other nosy body or expensive mental health professional that wants to shove an intrusive study down the parents throats.

The children should have security knowing immediately what their life will be like in divorce. We should not be making children wonder where they will live and who they will live with. Both parents are equal during marriage and remain equal during divorce. The children can adjust to living with both parents just as they adjust to many other things throughout their lives. When parents are married children adjust to changes that the parents bring into their lives all the time. Some parents move them multiple times a year, like military parents during marriage. Some parents change their jobs or careers while they are married and nobody from the court comes knocking on their door or slapping them with child support demands as long as the child is fed and has basic necessities. Our fundamental parental rights in fact are what protect us to continue to make decisions individually for our children in divorce. But this hasn’t caught up with the family courts or the movie industry yet either.

These brief encounters and short-lived scenes are very common in movies. In fact, it is rare to watch a movie where the subject of divorce or a child custody issue doesn’t come up. However, it is also rare that anything other than the stereotypical roles that we have been conditioned for regarding male and females in the caretaking and nurturing of children is rarely challenged on the big screen. This has led to the development of a growing movement that aims to not only educate fathers but also change this current conditioning by changing the child custody laws. The Fathers’ Rights Movement. has been educating fathers that they are just as important to their children’s lives as the mothers. The Father’s rights movement headed by Thomas Fidler is one of the few groups I’ve found that understand that fathers, not just mothers, play a key role in the caretaking, nurturing, and influencing children’s lives.

So the next time you see scenes in movies that are stereotypical and a vestige of our cultural conditioning you won’t have to wonder why The Father’s Rights Movement and equal custody time campaigns run by organizations like ourselves, Fix Family Courts, are increasing and are needed. Fathers have to be re-trained and society re-conditioned so that they know not to accept this second-class citizen role that the family courts inflict on them and the children. Both parents and children have the right to be free from court involvement and court interference in their basic constitutional and individual fundamental civil rights. They all have the right to free association and the expectation to be protected by policies that are least restrictive and least harmful to all of them so that they can develop their child into a happy and healthy role model for the next generation. The model for society is finally being challenged in a big way.

While there was a hint of this in the movie, when the father confidently said that he will have his daughter in his life. I just wish that it wasn’t with the tone that this meant tearing her away from the mother. Here, at Fix Family Courts we teach parents there is a way to do this without bullying, beating up, or tearing down the other parent.

Go see this movie, The Judge. It is touching, entertaining, and well-acted of course. This movie does a good job of portraying the importance of parents’ roles in children’s lives and how it affects them throughout their adulthood. And the next time you see a movie that portrays a child custody battle remember, to re-condition yourself that this is not a battle between mothers and fathers but a battle to protect your child from being influenced and torn apart by the courts in your private family matters.